Cassini shot the gap and lived to tell the tale.
The Saturn-exploring spacecraft managed to successfully fly through the 1,500 mile gap between Saturn and its rings and survive seemingly unscathed.
New photos beamed home after it completed that daredevil maneuver show the planet’s atmosphere from a closer distance than ever before. At its nearest point, Cassini flew about 1,900 miles above Saturn’s clouds, which are mainly comprised of hydrogen and helium.
While the unprocessed images still look pretty rough, they show details of Saturn’s atmosphere that aren’t usually on display.
“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,” Cassini project manager Earl Maize said in a statement.
NASA was confident that Cassini would move into its new orbit without much of a problem, but it was still a risky maneuver.
No spacecraft has ever explored this part of Saturn before, and Cassini was moving at about 77,000 miles per hour as it shot between the large planet and its rings. If even a relatively small particle had dinged the craft during its dive, it could have destroyed the spacecraft.
Cassini — which has been studying Saturn and its dozens of moons on humanity’s behalf for 13 years — is nearing the end of its mission. But it’s not quite finished with its daredevil-like feats.
The spacecraft is expected to dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings a total of 22 times, with the next drop happening on May 2.
The mission will come to an end on September 15 when Cassini makes a planned plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, burning up in the process.